The purists howled more than a decade ago when New York City was accused of Disneyizing Times Square. The peep shows and prostitutes were gone, and the funk and grit were replaced by family fare. With these changes came a friendlier New York. Cab drivers volunteered to be less abrasive. Visitors no longer begged for a mugging when seen reading a street map or perusing a guidebook in public. Street signs warned of $350 fines for unnecessary car horn blowing. It was just a matter of time before people were riding cleaner and graffiti-scarce subways. • And believe it or not, people actually — with nothing in it for them — began stopping to help confused visitors. • For those of you who have never been to New York City and those who have not visited for years, this is a guide to a four-day stay, which we found to be an ideal length for a city vacation. Following are our suggestions for a hearty Manhattan sampling.
Just as any visitor to France would be remiss to skip the Eiffel Tower, a New York tourist mustn't bypass Times Square. The neon jungle is like a visual sonic boom. The manmade canyon surrounded by lights, computer images and theater posters seemingly the size of Yosemite's El Capitan overwhelm.
High above Times Square is the world's most famous Waterford crystal ball. Every New Year's Eve, from the days of Guy Lombardo to those of Dick Clark and Ryan Seacrest, partiers have gathered here. Today, the ball slides 141 feet down a flagpole atop One Times Square at midnight on New Year's Eve. What you won't see here is any remnant of the once-flourishing sex trade, unless you count the sultry green M&M at megastore M&M's World.
In the nation's capital, it is from the top of the Washington Monument. In San Francisco it is from the Top of the Mark. The obvious choice in New York would be the Empire State Building, but it is rivaled today by the Top of the Rock, for its open observation deck and view of something one can't see from the top of the Empire State Building: the Empire State building itself, poking its needlelike tower skyward.
The top of the Rock is on the 70th floor of 30 Rockefeller Plaza, open since November 2005 after a 20-year closure. On a sparkling day the view extends about 80 miles. Exhibits and vintage photography downstairs tell the tale of Rockefeller Center, including the famous picture of workmen casually chowing down on lunch as they sit on a girder about 66 stories high.
For those who want to go to the Empire State Building observatory to say they did, the view doesn't disappoint. Its observation deck is, after all, more than 30 stories higher than the Top of the Rock, and on a clear day the view similarly extends 80 miles. A staff member is always on the observation deck to identify and tell the story behind almost every building within sight.
The standout museum
Every big city has its monumental museums, and we chose to explore the vast Metropolitan Museum of Art. Accept the fact that you can't see everything in one day. After you enter, grab a museum map and decide which five or six galleries are top priorities.
We opted for an eclectic mix, from the art of ancient Egypt to that of medieval Europe to 19th century European impressionism. Monets are in abundance, and lest you think teenagers sleep through history class, note that my 15-year-old daughter was intrigued by Rodin sculptures illustrating Greek and Roman myths she learned in school six months earlier.
The funky side of town
Where else but Greenwich Village? The Cafe Wha at 115 MacDougal St., where Bob Dylan and Bill Cosby, though not on the same bill, passed the hat in the early 1960s, still hosts up-and-comers, while Stanford White's commanding arch in Washington Square Park watches over the scene like a sturdy, silent sentinel. The row houses and brownstones make this an otherworldly setting when compared with the skyscrapers of Midtown. Incense wafts through the air in cozy shops where merchandise includes vintage clothing and vinyl records — remember vinyl records? New York is a prime city for walking, and Greenwich Village is the best neighborhood to get lost in.
How the top 1 percent lives
Chicago has its Magnificent Mile, Beverly Hills has Rodeo Drive, and New York has Fifth Avenue in Midtown. Louis Vuitton, Tiffany & Co., Prada, Gucci, Cartier and Versace all maintain stores along Fifth Avenue between E 49th and E 59th streets. We perused nearly all the designer duds at Saks Fifth Avenue, where a $3,500 Gucci purse is standard fare. For browsers, the women's shoe department on the eighth floor, with its light and spacious decor and shoes by Jimmy Choo and Oscar de la Renta, is the most popular stop.
Don't expect snooty clerks looking down their noses at you, like the restaurant host in Ferris Bueller's Day Off. The staff was exceedingly friendly even though it was obvious we didn't have the money to buy anything. Yet I was even encouraged to try on outerwear and sport coats. For a couple of minutes I was Donald Trump.
It doesn't take long to find hidden gems in this city filled with small museums and historic sites. Our favorite is the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace National Historic Site. A biographical film, guided tour, TR's possessions and original furnishings in the reconstructed brownstone tell the story of wimpy, asthmatic "Teedie," who grew up to be a robust outdoorsman and the 26th president.
A walk through the home at 28 E 20th St. also offers a surprising look at New York's narrow brownstones. Based on Dutch canal houses — this city once was New Amsterdam after all — brownstones are much longer than wide. This one offers up a stunning 4,500 square feet of living space. The handsome horsehair dining chairs scratched young Roosevelt's legs, so his parents bought him his own cushy chair. A photograph shows him alongside it.
Every place seems to have one, from automobile factories in Dearborn, Mich., to rice packaging plants in Louisiana. In New York, the media capital of the United States, it makes sense to take in the NBC Experience, a walking tour through NBC headquarters at 30 Rockefeller Center.
Depending on production schedules, visitors enter one to three studios. The most common reaction from visitors at Studio 8H, home of Saturday Night Live, concerns its diminutive size. Near the tour's end, two volunteers become Brian Williams and Al Roker, anchoring a faux news program. Volunteer to do the weather; it's tougher than it looks. Reservations are recommended.
The play's the thing
There are loads of sights, but we would have to pick the theater as our No. 1 must-see. New York is the theater capital of North America, with roughly 30 Broadway theaters, as well as off-Broadway and off-off-Broadway theaters. There are innumerable ways to avoid paying full price. The TKTS booths at Times Square and downtown offer discounted tickets, but lines in bus seasons can be long. One can also order tickets in advance via online ticket clubs that offer free membership, such as playbill.com, theatermania.com and BroadwayBox.com. The Great White Way may conjure up images of theatergoers garbed in their best threads, but when we saw The Phantom of the Opera at the Majestic Theater, audience members wore everything from sport coats to jeans.
Michael Schuman is a freelance writer based in Keene, N.H.